I usually don’t get too caught up in Internet hubbub related to popular culture happenings, but this Fifty Shades stuff is going to make my head explode. Just in case you’ve been off the grid for the past 4 years, the Fifty Shades of Grey series is an erotic romance trilogy originally self published in 2011 as an ebook, with Vintage Books acquiring publishing rights in 2012. It is, of course, most notable in popular culture for its explicit depiction of acts involving BDSM. And if you have been off the grid, perhaps you aren’t aware of how popular these books are. In February 2014, Vintage Books announced the Fifty Shades of Grey series had sold 100 million copies worldwide. That’s one hundred meel-yon, folks.
According to Newsweek, “for every blogger or expert proclaiming Fifty Shades is an emancipating tool for women, there’s another decrying it as dangerous trash.” For the record, I have read and own all three books and it never dawned on me that anyone might find them threatening (as “dangerous trash”)…and dare I say, enjoyed them for what they are: fantasy…make believe…different than real life…entertainment…not non-fiction.
I also cringed the moment I heard they were going to turn the books into a movie. I thought it would be a disaster because they would have to karate chop all the good parts to get an R rating – and because some things are best left snuggled up in our own imaginations. Clearly I am either hopelessly naive or unbelievably obtuse, because I did not anticipate that the ire and vitriol dedicated to it in earnest would actually be about how it glorifies the abuse of women – I mean, at the time, I had no idea that I was reading a book where women were being abused!
So imagine my surprise when I started seeing post after post enumerating the reasons the movie should be boycotted, and characterizing the main relationship as abusive, manipulative and misogynistic. Also surprising to me how many reasonable, well-intentioned folks are up in arms and feeling the dire need to proselytize in the name of religion, God, feminism and preventing domestic violence.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend shared one of these kinds of blog posts on Facebook about Fifty Shades . I don’t normally add fuel to the fire, but not only did I totally disagree with how the author characterized the relationship between Christian and Ana (who are fictional characters, might I remind you), but I could not stomach how much bias the author clearly brought into the piece. It felt really outrageous to me. So I commented that in all fairness, I didn’t really see their relationship in the same terms that the author did and that the article contained very little factual accuracy. My friend responded back, very respectfully and said that since she hadn’t read the books, she would like to hear my opinions. She’s a friend, we chatted privately, we can agree to disagree…no big deal. But then someone else posted in response to me, something to the effect that just because violence is consensual doesn’t mean it’s not abuse.
After sorting through all those double negatives (I can only write them, I can’t read them), I sat on that for a good long while. I’ve been chewing on it for weeks now. My reaction isn’t so heated as it was that day – definitely more careful, purposeful and formulated…but my core beliefs and values as they pertain to this topic have not wavered from that first knee-jerk reaction. Which is this: from an ethical, moral and legal perspective, informed consent among adults is precisely where the line is that separates abuse from sexual expression that may not be considered to be within the norm by mainstream America.
I think what bothers me the most about this debate is that we’re even having it – that there are people who are saying this line doesn’t exist or that there is no difference between domestic abuse and non-normative sex. Did we forget, as a society, just how sexually repressed we are in general? Are we too afraid to look outside the walls of our own bedroom to even consider how wide the range of sexual expression actually is? Who gets to decide what’s considered normal anyway, and why have we seemed to have settled on missionary-style-with-the-lights-off? What are we afraid will happen if we find out that the leather-clad, cat o’ nine tails yielding dominatrix is actually our perfectly pleasant neighbor, PTA mom, and professional, contributing member of society? Why can’t we even consider the possibility that pleasure could be derived from pain, especially if we’ve never experienced it? And for the love of Pete, why can’t we tell the difference between erotic sexual behaviors – even violent ones – and battery?
Admittedly, informed consent comes with caveats. Certainly minors and others with mental impairments cannot grant consent. Beyond those obvious examples, the slope starts to become too slippery for us mere mortals to stand in judgement – even those who do so in the name of religion or God. The notion of trying to draw universal moral boundaries – as in “all erotic behavior is wrong” or “all violent behavior, even in an erotic context, is abusive” – seems to me like an overly rigid way of thinking about these things that doesn’t allow for all of the complexities that exist within human interactions or where those humans are in their development.
I am positive there are very real scenarios where someone might be consenting to painful sex because they are too afraid to say no for various reasons – perhaps because they fear their partner will leave them if they don’t…but consenting nonetheless. Maybe in a perfect world, rough sex would only occur between two partners who have done the really hard work of sorting through all their baggage, healing their wounds, and exploring their own genuine heartfelt desires and preferences; and never between confused, insecure, under-developed psyches….but trying to regulate, or even evaluate, motivations and dynamics within individual transactions in such a global way is a huge mistake. And it feels like that’s exactly what we’re doing when we buy into the idea that three books and a movie can be “dangerous trash.”
And maybe these are just a lot of superfluous words that don’t really convey what is actually bugging me. Maybe I just took the long windy road around what I really wanted to say, which is to stop judging and keep your nose in your own bedroom where it belongs.